A History of the Castro Theater in San Francisco

1899

Abraham Nasser immigrates to San Francisco from Lebanon and moves with his family to the upstairs of their convenience store on 18th Street and Collingwood Street in the neighborhood later known as the Castro District.

1907

A year after the great earthquake and fire of 1906, a customer asks Nasser to expand his business by projecting moving images onto a blank wall at the back of the store. The retailer agrees.

1908

With more people showing up to watch movies than to run errands, Nasser puts his seven sons in charge of running a nickel odeon, the Liberty Theater. The burgeoning film empire would soon include the Alhambra on Polk Street and the New Mission, along with its crown jewel the Castro Theater just a few blocks away.

1910

The Nasser brothers relocated their company to a 600-seat theater at 485 Castro St., which would become Cliff’s Variety in 1971.

1922

The 1,407-seat Castro Theater opens June 22 at 429 Castro St.. Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph attends the screening of Paramount’s silent race car movie “Across the Continent,” starring Wallace Reid (pronounced on morphine, the star dies in a sanitarium the following year in an attempt to get rid of the habit). A full-page article in The Chronicle praises the $300,000 movie house designed by architect Timothy L. Pflueger. In Spanish Baroque style with an ornate plastered facade and large auditorium, it is hailed as an ‘indication of great progress’. Pflueger will later design the Paramount Theater in Oakland, as well as the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in San Francisco, the Pacific Telephone Building in SoMa, and the Top of the Mark in Nob Hill.

Castro Theater on opening night, June 22, 1922. Provided by Anita Monga

1930

A dispute arises between theater owners and orchestra musicians, who at the beginning of the talkies era are given a two-week notice period that they will be replaced by a sound system. The performers and their union are accused of planting 35 scent bombs in both the Castro and the Alhambra and Royal theatres, which are also operated by the Nassers.

1937

Castro’s famous neon sign and art deco tent were installed after a small electrical fire in the theater. Pflueger also makes other decorative upgrades while on the job, such as adding the sunburst chandelier to replace the original parchment fixture destroyed by the fire.

1963

The Fox Theater at 1350 Market St. in San Francisco, the largest movie house on the West Coast with 4,650 seats, is being demolished.

The Fox Theater is demolished in 1963. Ken McLaughlin / The Chronicle 1963

1976

The Castro Theater is called San Francisco Historic Landmark No. 100, although it has fallen into disrepair and is struggling financially. The Nassers leased the theater to Mel Novikoff’s company Surf Theaters, which is changing the format into repertory cinema, leading to special first-run presentations, foreign films and festivals. The theater, which has survived from second-run blockbusters to date, is also introducing LGBTQ programming.

The Castro Theater in 1971. Joe Rosenthal / The Chronicle 1971

1977

The organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival announce the schedule for the 21st annual event to be held October 5-16. Director Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Deerfield” opens the festival at the Masonic Auditorium. Festival director Claude Jarman said films would be shown for a second night at the newly renovated Castro Theater in response to a request from Mayor George Moscone to screen films at a neighborhood theater.

1979

Ray Taylor and his sons begin building Castro’s signature Wurlitzer pipe organ, a project that will take three years to complete. Once installed, the organ will provide a musical prelude to “San Francisco” ahead of community events and movie screenings. But it remains privately owned by Taylor.

In 2013, Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ is played. Sean Havey / The Chronicle 2013

1981

Founded to support the LGBTQ film industry, the non-profit Frameline makes the Castro Theater its home. The opening night of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Film Festival will see the world premiere of “Greetings From Washington, DC,” about the 1979 march on the Capitol. The theater will also be home to festivals such as the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFilm), Noir City, and the Silent Film Festival.

1985

In Castro is the world premiere of Arthur Bressan’s ‘Buddies’, the first film about the AIDS crisis. David Hegarty is called the main organist of the theater.

1988

After Novikoff’s death a year earlier, Blumenthal Theaters takes over the lease with programmer Anita Monga, who maintains the eclectic booking policy he has initiated.

1989

The chandelier falls at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, as the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area. The theater is empty but has structural damage to the rear wall.

The chandelier before it fell in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Steve Ringman / The Chronicle 1984

1990

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus introduces its Home for the Holidays concerts at the Castro on Christmas Eve.

1994

Filmmaker and event producer Marc Huestis presents his first celebrity program in Castro, the disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure” with star Carol Lynley in attendance. Huestis will host stars like Debbie Reynolds, Justin Vivian Bond, Patty Duke, Jane Russell, John Cameron Mitchell, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak and others at popular events for the next three decades, earning it the moniker “The Impresario of Castro Street.” In 1996, Huestis hosted the theater’s first John Waters Christmas event, a performance that the artist tours annually.

Marc Huestis in 2003. John O’Hara / The Chronicle 2003

2001

The Castro is undergoing another round of renovations as the Nasser family resumes operation of the theater. Among the upgrades are new seats, projectors and a sound system. The stage has also been expanded, allowing for more diverse live programming, including comedy shows, community events, and drag queen-hosted screenings of camp film classics. The closed Alhambra reopens as a Gorilla Sports fitness center.

Sing-along events are launched in the spring with Joe Wicht and Connie Champagne leading “The Sound of Music,” which becomes an annual tradition. Laurie Bushman and Sara Moore eventually take over the sing-along, adding other big screen musicals and animated Disney favorites to the rotation.

2008

The facade has been repainted and the neon sign restored for the shooting of Gus Van Sant’s biopic ‘Milk’, in which the Castro Theater and the surrounding neighborhood feature prominently. The film about California’s first openly gay elected official, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, will have its world premiere at the Castro in November, with star Sean Penn in attendance.

A set designer repaints the tent at the Castro Theater to reflect its 1970s appearance when filming for “Milk” began on January 24, 2008. Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2008

2011

Keith Arnold is named General Manager of Operations, bringing movie booking back home and expanding the breadth of theater programming. Drag artist Peaches Christ moves her popular cult film series ‘Midnight Mass’ from the closed Bridge Theater to the Castro to present ‘Mommie Dearest’. Christ becomes another much-loved presenter at the theater, often bringing together the biggest personalities of the San Francisco drag scene and contestants from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” onstage to perform films from “Death Becomes Her” and fan-favorite “Showgirls” ( with a free lap dance with every major popcorn) to the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Grey Gardens’.

2012

The Castro Theater celebrates its 90th anniversary weekend with a pair of classics, “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind”, preceded by “Mary Poppins” and a noir double bill, introduced by Noir City Film Festival director, writer and television host Eddie Muller : “The Big Sleep” and “Where Danger Lives.”

2015

The Wurlitzer organ is being removed at the request of the house organist, David Hegarty, as the necessary repairs are becoming too costly. It is temporarily replaced by a two-key electronic organ.

David Hegarty sits on the Wurlitzer Organ of the Castro Theater on March 5, 2013. Sean Havey / The Chronicle 2013

2017

The theater plays host to the funeral of Gilbert Baker, creator of the iconic rainbow Gay Pride Flag.

People hold a wide rainbow flag that reads “Rise and Resist!” at a march and memorial in the Castro to Gilbert Baker on March 31, 2017. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 2017

2019

Plans have been announced to install the world’s largest hybrid organ in the theater – a custom-built instrument that uses both traditional and digital organ technology to reproduce orchestral sounds.

2020

The Castro Theater is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. That spring, artist Mace covered the boarded up cash register with murals honoring essential workers.

On June 20, 2020, people walk past the boarded-up Castro Theater. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

2021

“The Matrix: Resurrections” makes its US theater premiere with director and part-time San Francisco resident Lana Wachowski, along with stars Keanu Reeves, Neil Patrick Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss walking the green carpet. Castro Street is closed to traffic between 18th Street and Market Street.

A red pill is displayed outside the Castro Theater for the premiere of ‘The Matrix: Resurrections’. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

2022

Berkeley-based concert promotion company Another Planet Entertainment announces it will acquire the operations of Castro, which will remain owned by Bay Properties Inc., controlled by Elaine Nasser Padian and Steven Nasser. CEO Gregg Perloff tells The Chronicle his first assignment is to modernize the theater after years of vandalism and neglect. He also reassures fans that the company hopes to continue hosting the events that defined the venue — and then some.

Mary Conde, vice president of production at Another Planet Entertainment, points to damage from vandalism at the register. Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

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